What Is Reactive Airway Disease?

Occasionally we hear the terms “reactive airway disease" (RAD), and "reactive airway disease syndrome" (RADS). They are often used interchangeably with asthma. But, they are not asthma. So, what are they? Here’s what to know.

What is reactive airway disease?

It’s a placeholder. That’s all it is. It’s not even an official diagnosis. It means that a patient is experiencing asthma symptoms: coughing, sputum production, shortness of breath, and wheezing. But, an official diagnosis of asthma has not been made yet. It basically means that further testing is needed to get an official diagnosis.1-3

So, how is asthma diagnosed anyway? Ideally, it should entail doing a pulmonary function test (PFT). Asthma symptoms are reversible with time or treatment. This can be confirmed by doing PFT. There are also other ways of diagnosing asthma. You can learn more by reading our post, “How Is Asthma Diagnosed?”

You will sometimes see RAD in reference to adults. But, most likely it’s used to describe children, especially children under the age of five. This is because young children are usually unable to perform tests to diagnose asthma, such as a PFT. Or, when they do these tests, the results are usually not very accurate.1-2

It’s usually used as a placeholder for asthma. But, it may also be used in reference to COPD, bronchitis, bronchiolitis, and even pneumonia. So, until further testing can be done, some doctors may write “reactive airway disease” as the diagnosis.1-3

What is reactive airway dysfunction syndrome?

This is an official diagnosis. It describes the symptoms of coughing, shortness of breath, and wheezing. But, these symptoms are usually the result of a one-time exposure to gas fumes, vapors, or smoke.2-3

RADS is an official term. It was first used in medical journals in 1985. It’s recognized as official by the American Thoracic Society and the American College of Chest Physicians. It’s an “asthma-like” condition, but it’s not asthma.3

I don’t want to get into more detail about RADS in this post. For now, just know that RADS is different from the unofficial term “reactive airway disease.”

How are “reactive airways” treated?

RAD present similar to asthma. Their airways are hypersensitive to triggers. These triggers may include your common allergens, such as dust mites or animal dander. It may include strong smells, such as perfume. It may include changes in weather.2

Like asthma, RAD may be treated with asthma medicines. The best way of treating it is by avoiding triggers. For instance, if dogs set off flare-ups, then a doctor may recommend avoiding dogs.

Asthma medicines may also be considered as a means of controlling it. This may definitely be the case if an official diagnosis of asthma is eventually made.

Reactive airway disease may not be asthma

Reactive airway disease is not an official disease. A person with reactive airway disease has symptoms similar to asthma, but an official diagnosis hasn’t been made yet. Further testing is needed. This testing may confirm a diagnosis of asthma. Or, it may rule out asthma and rule in another lung disease, such as COPD.

Here’s what the American Thoracic Society has to say on this subject:

“The problem is that “reactive airways” and “reactive airways disease” are highly nonspecific terms that have no clinical meaning. As such, we view these terms as unhelpful and potentially harmful, and we recommend that they not be used.”3

Most asthmatics can obtain good control of their disease. This is accomplished by working with a doctor and getting proper treatment. Other lung diseases may also be controlled, but the approach may be somewhat different than how asthma is treated. So, this is why getting to that official diagnosis is so important.

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